The father of a promising pugilist is dealt more than a few ugly blows in “Keep Your Head Up.” Sophomore effort by Italo helmer Alessandro Angelini (“The Salty Air”) confirms his rep as a talented actors’ director, but the beautifully played drama of the first half is abandoned halfway in favor of an ungainly pileup of plot twists, many borrowed from other movies. Presence of Sergio Castellitto (who won best actor at the Rome fest) as the father should aid local B.O., but structural and tonal problems will prevent foreign distribs from losing their heads over this one.
In the coastal area close to the Roman capital — which, as in the days of Pasolini, is still populated with colorful outcasts and immigrants — live tough-as-nails shipyard worker and former boxer Mero (Castellitto) and his teenage son, Lorenzo (Gabriele Campanelli, promising). The handsome youngster is more talented in the ring than his father, who personally trains him, but he lacks Mero’s drive and focus.
Echoing the complicated but engrossing father-son relationship of “The Salty Air,” the pic delivers something close to real truths about these flawed but deeply human working-class characters. When Mero, a man of few words, is forced to admit he taught Lorenzo everything he knows and it may be time for the son to move on to a more experienced coach, it’s a quietly heartbreaking moment for both men.
The integration of the many immigrants from southeast Europe in Mero and Lorenzo’s world feels credible early on, and the portrayal of Lorenzo’s largely absent Albanian mother (Pia Lanciotti, impressive) feels spot-on. When Lorenzo falls head-over-heels for a Romanian lass (Laura Ilie), Mero feels — though he doesn’t say so — that he should protect his son from his own past mistakes. The two men quarrel vigorously, and Lorenzo leaves, pissed, on his scooter.
Pic then takes a left turn into “Million Dollar Baby” territory, but Angelini’s decision to shoot a fateful scene in long shot, and at night, drains it of much of its dramatic potential. After a life-altering decision by Mero — scenes that are saved only by Castellitto’s constantly magnetic perf, easily his best in years — the pic moves to Gorizia, on the border with Slovenia.
Screenplay then continues to pile on second-hand twists and turns, wringing something of a happy ending out of material that would be more at home in a warts-and-all immigrants movie from Angelini’s compatriot, Francesco Munzi (“Saimir,” “The Rest of the Night”). By then, Angelini’s insistence on immigrants as part of Italy’s fabric feels completely contrived.
Throughout the pic’s shifts of tone and location, Castellitto and the grayish, slightly saturated handheld lensing by ace d.p. Arnaldo Catinari provide the only two constants. Other contributions are duly unfussy.